Published in Equestrian Living Fall 2012 issue.
As you turn off the Pacific Coast Highway and meander towards Santa Ynez Valley, the soundtrack to the movie Sideways may come to mind. You may not be on a male-bonding trip or a wine tasting outing, but you will inevitably fall in love with this laid-back, central-coast region of California.
This region of California, just 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, yields some of the finest wines in the country. It is the gentle balance of shifting winds in an opposing flow of warm and cool air that prevent the grapes from ripening too quickly — paving the way for a longer growing season, which enhances the grapes with a crisp balance between acid and sugar. Add to that the natural drift of fog from the Pacific that travels along the east-west Santa Ynez mountain range, and you have ideal conditions for producing a variety of award-winning wines.
Santa Ynez was not originally recognized for its ideal grape-growing conditions. The ranchers were first to settle here — appreciating the unique character and rustic appeal of the valley. It was a more recent discovery that the valley offered optimal growing conditions for winemakers. Today there exists a comfortable balance of horse farms and ranches and preeminent wineries.
A Relaxed California Lifestyle
The ranchers and winemakers share the sentiment that protecting the authentic casual atmosphere and minimizing development of Santa Ynez is essential. There is a nostalgic feel here, similar, the locals say, to what Sonoma and Napa Valleys felt like 20 or 30 years ago. They wish to preserve the appealing character of classic gentleman ranchers sharing the land with emerging winemakers.
There is no better place to witness this blending of wine and horse than at Bridlewood Winery. Once an Arabian horse farm and equestrian rehabilitation center, it now stands as a state-of-the-art, award-winning winery. The Spanish Mission structure with white stucco walls and adobe tile roofs sits beautifully at the end of a tree-lined drive, surrounded by vine-covered hillsides. A Spanish-style bell tower and wrap-around verandas contribute to the welcoming atmosphere of this intimate winery.
The Gallo family purchased Bridlewood in 2004, appreciating the wine David Hopkins, winemaker, was producing — and the sheer beauty of the property. The family shares a passion for wine and horses — several family members are accomplished equestrians and at least a dozen senior Gallo managers own horses and love to ride. The family keeps some of their horses here, where they can enjoy relaxed rides through 100 acres of Bridlewood and the linking, neighboring farms and vineyards beyond.
The exquisite remodel and preservation of the original equestrian center also held special appeal to the Gallos. Only minor architectural changes were made to the main structure. Stalls were removed and concrete floors were installed, making way for modern, innovative winemaking equipment. Original doors, hardware, and bathing stalls are still in place. David Hopkins enjoys the fact that his office was once the sophisticated equine surgical suite.
The property still boasts a race track, originally used for rehabilitation as well as paddocks, two lakes, and a waterfall. Retired horses bask in the bucolic setting, enjoying the California sunshine and grazing in the shaded paddocks.
In keeping with the equestrian flavor of this winery, horse and carriage tours are offered on weekends. What better way for visitors to enjoy the history of the facility, experience the beauty of the property, and sample some of Bridlewood’s award-winning varietals?
Bridlewood firmly believes that horses and wine go together. David Hopkins states there is something so enjoyable about taking an evening ride and returning to a perfect glass of wine. He fully embraces the concept that life is a celebration.
To reserve a tour, phone 800-467-4100
What could be better than combining fine wine, innovative food, scenic beauty, and the equestrian lifestyle? The Santa Ynez Valley, just a short, gorgeous drive from Santa Barbara and an easy day or weekend trip from Los Angeles sprawl is known as the Napa Valley of LA.
But the area offers much more than wine. The New York Times said, “If racehorses dream of greener pastures, the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley might be exactly what they have in mind.” The verdant central coast California landscape of rolling hills and cooling coastal winds is popularly recognized as the setting for the movie Sideways. What few people know is that it has long been an equestrian paradise.”
In Santa Ynez, horsey activities share equal billing with wine tasting. Like the gold stars embedded in the walkways of Hollywood, the horseshoes of local steeds are part of Santa Ynez sidewalks. There are equestrian galleries, a local foxhunt, tack shops, English and Western horse shows, and a carriage museum.
The valley is a wonderful place to spend a day, a weekend, or a lifetime. With one of the finest climates in California and a relaxed, laid-back lifestyle, the area attracts people who could live anywhere they choose. “Horse Whisperer” Monty Roberts (Flag is Up Farms), Ronald Regan (well-loved Rancho del Cielo), and Michael Jackson (Neverland) have made the area home, as well as an eclectic mix that includes Bo Derek, Fess Parker, Steven Seagal, Steven Spielberg, Dolly Parton, David Crosby, Kelly LeBrock, and Jimmy Connors.
The growth of the valley’s wine industry began in the early 1970s when Brooks Firestone, of the tire-making family, planted 260 acres with grapes. Firestone Vineyards is still the largest producer in the valley.
Today, a wine-tasting visit can last an awfully long time — there are over 70 wineries and tasting rooms. After the famous 2004 film Sideways brought the region’s wines to national fame, many visitors now follow the “Sideways Wine Trail,” stopping at the various restaurants and wineries that appeared in the movie.
In addition to wine and equine activities, there are lavender farms, apple orchards, a quaint Danish village, a casino, and numerous art galleries to fill your days.
Santa Barbara is close enough for dinner or a daytime beach visit.
What To Do in the Santa Ynez Valley
Go Wine Tasting (Obviously!)
With over 70 wineries and tasting rooms to choose from, selecting which to visit can be difficult. Some of our favorites include Bridlewood, Beckman, Zaca Mesa, and Carhartt. The Bella Cavalli (Beautiful Horses) Winery, which is located next to Monty Roberts’ Flag is Up Farms, combines a beautiful horse farm and fine wines. You can walk between them and visit both.
Take a Day of Wine and Horses Tour
Each four-hour tour visits two equestrian facilities and two wineries. A delightful gourmet lunch is served on the morning tour, and sustaining happy-hour style hors d’oeuvres are provided on the afternoon tour.
Visit the Horse Whisperer
The home of “the man who listens to horses,” Monty Roberts, is open to the public. Flag Is Up Farms is the internationally renowned starting point for some of the world’s most successful performance horses and highest-earning racehorses. It is also the home of the Monty Roberts Equestrian Academy and equine celebrity Shy Boy.
Stroll the Towns
The Santa Ynez Valley has several towns, each with its own unique character. Among them:
Santa Ynez has a western feel, with wooden sidewalks and an Old West historical museum. There are numerous vineyards and a 24-acre Equestrian Center with English and western events.
Solvang seems to have appeared out of Disneyland. It is a Danish village with Scandinavian architecture and an interesting array of shops and restaurants. The highlight is, of course, the delicious Danish pastries.
Los Olivos is a charming, understated village with a subtle European feel. Numerous wine-tasting rooms and art galleries line the quiet streets.
Where to Eat
Sides Hardware and Shoes, Los Olivos, CA
A white Victorian dripping with charm and a long-time favorite for great food, wine, and sumptuous desserts, including home-made ice cream.
Roasted duck breast with sweet potato purée, herb-crusted tuna with Niçoise mashed potatoes, and wild striped bass with potato and artichoke hash are a few of the favorites here.
The Hitching Post, Buellton, CA
Sideways-famous the Hitching Post is known for a first-class wine list and steaks cooked on an open grill.
Where to Stay
The resort has 10,000 acres of canyons, brooks, and forests and is best explored on horseback. Surely you will find the ideal sightseeing partner with one of the 100 horses available on the ranch. Additional activities include a lake for sailing, swimming, or fishing, a pool, two 18-hole championship golf courses, and a restaurant.
The rooms at this cozy, elegant inn offer fireplaces and balconies. In addition to cooked-to-order breakfast and a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception, you’ll be treated to evening coffee and tea, plus addictive chocolate cookies on your nightstand at bedtime.
Published Fall 2012